Imperial Russian: Navy Seaplane Carriers

A far cry from the capability offered by Cold War era and modern day aircraft carriers, during World War 1 the Imperial Russian Navy operated a number of Seaplane Carriers including the Orlitza (pictured) which served with the Imperial Russian Baltic Fleet.

The Seaplane Carrier Imperator Alexander I

The Seaplane Carrier Imperator Nikola I

In the second decade of the 21st century, design studies were underway with the aim of building a nuclear powered aircraft carrier for the Russian Federation Navy to replace that services sole conventional powered Aircraft Carrying Heavy Cruiser, Admiral of the Fleet of the Soviet Union, Kuznetsov, which was, by that time, in her third decade of service, the four aircraft carrying cruisers of the Kiev Class and the two Moskva Class helicopter carriers having long since been retired. The design and building road to produce a Soviet and later Russian aircraft carrier force had been long and arduous, the Soviet Union facing trials and tribulations faced by no other aircraft carrier building nation. Among these were the wartime sieges, massive depletion of workforces due to the horrific death tolls on the eastern front and enemy occupation of land mass or cutting off of build and design centres. On top of this was the fact that wartime priorities for production resources inevitably went to the land and air forces locked in the largest clash of armies the world had ever seen as the Soviet Union struggled, first for survival and then to expel the Axis invaders from its soil before continuing on to take Berlin, the German capital, in 1945.

There are several points in history that could be defined as the commencement of air operations from ships at sea. However, it is an incontestable fact that the type of ship known as the aircraft carrier was born out of the labour pains of World War 1. There were, however, several landmark events leading up to the aircraft carrier as defined in the 20th and 21st centuries. For example, in 1806 the Thames Class Frigate HMS Pallas (launched in 1804), deployed kites used to scatter anti-Napoleon leaflets over France during the Napoleonic Wars, this considered to be the first air operation launched from a ship at sea. The first offensive air operation from a ship is considered to have taken place in 1849 when the Austrian ship Vulcano launched Montgolfiere hot air balloons on a failed attempt to drop small size bombs on the city of Venice. The pioneers of these audacious early ship launched air operations could hardly have dreamt that by the early 20th century powered flight would become a reality, and that such machines would be operating from ships at sea.

In the years proceeding World War 1, a new classification of warship emerged in the shape of the Seaplane Carrier. The first true seaplane carrier is considered to have been the French vessel Foudre, which was converted from a torpedo boat tender to carry seaplanes, from 1911, housed in a covered hanger on the main deck.

In Britain, the Royal Navy converted the Protected Cruiser HMS Hermes to a Seaplane Tender for trials in 1913. Having been paid off at the end of 1913, Hermes was recommissioned as a Seaplane Tender in August 1914, the month World War 1 started, ,but was sunk  by a German Submarine a short time later.

There were a not insignificant number of merchant vessels and warships converted to serve as seaplane tenders/carriers in several navies during the war years of 1914-1918, including several such vessels that would serve with the Imperial Russian Navy in the Black Sea and Baltic Sea theatres. The first such vessel was the Seaplane Carrier Almaz, converted from the Cruiser of the same name (completed in 1903) in 1914.

The Almaz, in her incarnation as a Seaplane Carrier, was destined to serve in the Imperial Russian Black Sea Fleet, mainly out of the port of Novorossiysk on the Russian Black Sea coast. She carried an embarked force of Grigorovich M-5 Type seaplanes that were tasked with general reconnaissance and fire support spotting duties. In the turmoil, commencing in February 1917, leading to the October 1917 Revolution that would ultimately through various twists and turns lead to the state recognized as the Soviet Union (USSR – Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), the Almaz changed hands several times, at various times being in the charge of Ukraine, Germany and Britain before being turned over to the White Russian Fleet opposed to the Red Russian (future Soviet) forces. Following the acceptance of defeat and the internment of the White Russian Fleet in Algiers in French North Africa in 1920, the vessel was turned over to France in 1928 and ultimately scrapped in 1934.

No less than four more fully fledged Seaplane Carriers (other vessels are noted to have undergone some modifications work) followed the Almaz, including the Orlitza, which was converted from the merchant ship Imperatritza Aleksandra I in 1915, this vessel, post conversion, operating an embarked force of seaplanes for reconnaissance and spotting duties with the Imperial Russian Baltic Fleet. Records are vague, but it appears that this vessel was returned to civil service as a merchant ship in 1923.

A Russian passenger liner (which entered civil service in 1913) was, under the name of Imperator Nikolai I, converted to a Seaplane Carrier from sometime in 1915, serving with the Russian Black Sea Fleet. The ship was renamed Aviator in May 1917. Having survived World War 1 and the revolutionary campaigns in post war Russia, the vessel, having been captured by German forces at Sevastopol in spring 1918 and handed over to Britain in November that year, was sold to the French Maritime Service in 1921 for Messageries Maritimes service as the Pierre Loti.

The Russian Merchant Liner Imperator Alexander I, (Aleksander I) which entered civil service in 1913, was commissioned into the Imperial Russian Navy in 1915 as a Seaplane Carrier. This vessel was renamed Respublikatec on 11 May 1917. In 1921 she was sold to the French Maritime Shipping company Messageries Maritimes, being operated as the merchant ship Lamartine before being renamed Khai Dinn in 1940.

The Romanian (Rumanian) State Maritime Service Liner Ruminia (completion date being around 1904) was taken over by Russia in 1916 and converted to a Seaplane Carrier, retaining the ships civil name. This vessel operated with an embarked force of between 4 and 6 Grigorovich M-9 Type flying boats tasked with the reconnaissance and spotting roles. The Ruminia was returned to Romania in late 1918, having been captured by German forces in spring 1918 and handed over to Britain in November that year.

During World War 1, which was, perhaps naively, described as the war to end all wars that failed to live up to its epithet, the British Royal Navy, then the World’s dominant maritime power, operated not only seaplane carriers, but also introduced a number of aircraft carriers, in that aircraft would take-off from the flying-off deck. While the Imperial Russian Navy had operated the above seaplane carriers during the war, no aircraft carriers were introduced to service, neither was there any serious plans for the introduction of such vessels. By contrast, Britain was making great strides in the evolution of aircraft carrier design, having introduced, HMS Ark Royal, considered to be the World’s first, albeit rudimentary, aircraft carrier in that the seaplane engines would be started on non-flying-off deck. This vessel, in reality a seaplane carrier converted from a merchant vessel in 1914, went on to serve in the Dardanelles campaign in 1915, and in other theatres through the 1918 Armistice.